The Swiss Family Carlson Explores Bellinzona!

Hot on the heels of returning from Scotland we all took a long weekend in the canton of Ticino.  This has ended up being a 2-part series. Stay tuned for tales our our trek into Lugano and Locarno.

Switzerland, if you look at a map, has four points at the bottom.  Ticino is the 3rd point on from the West. The first is has Geneva, the second one has the Matterhorn, and the one on the far East is where the rich vacation in St. Moritz.  We seem to be working our way across, so one day we will probably vacation above our means at some spa on a mountain.

The three cities we visited were Bellinzona, Locarno, and Lugano.  It turns out that 1 August is National Swiss Day.  1 August is like July 4th in America – celebrated with fireworks, paper lanterns, parades, bonfires, and barbeques.  And it also turns out that lots of people are traveling on National Swiss Day. We had planned on staying a night in each town, however, hotel rooms were scarce so we ended up staying in Bellinzona for the entire time and taking in Locarno and Lugano as day trips.

Bellinzona ended up being a great choice.  Founded in 590 as the town Belitio, Bellinzona is poised in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges and right along the Ticino River.  Like many other towns in the Neutral, But Prepared Switzerland it has been home to fortifications since the Roman Emperor Augustus built a fort there in 1AD. Everyone recognized Bellinzona’s location as an extremely important location and ideal for defending Northern Italy from invasion.

Given the importance of the location LOADS of people wanted Bellinzona for themselves.  Diocletian, Constantin, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, and the Longobards all wanted it.  And hence the name.  The Bellinzona doesn’t mean “beautiful place” as many people, including me, first thought. It means “war zone.”

Bellinzona grew incredibly prosperous while the Visconti (and, therefore, the city of Milan, Italy) controlled it.  They collected tolls, taxes, and duties to people wanting to sell and transport their goods through the city.

Finally, King Louis XII of France invaded Bellinzona and fortified Castelgrande (who you will meet later) with platoons of soldiers to keep the Swiss from invading.  However, King Louis should have been more concerned with winning the hearts of the people.  They had only been in the city for a year before the people of Bellinzona grabbed all the weapons they could carry and drove the French out of the city.  To keep the French from coming back they became members of Swiss Federation and accepted all the rights, privileges, and trained armies that came with it.

Ticino may fly a Swiss flag, but they are still Italians at heart.  My German was of absolutely no use in Bellinzona, Locarno, and Lugano.  English and Italian were what we needed.  And this is where I found out that German is starting to become my go-to language.  Who knew.

It’s easy to believe that you are in Italy as you walk through Bellinzona.  The buildings are painted in Mediterranean colors and they have a particular “Italian” vibe.  And no building more so than the Palazzo Civico.

The Old City Hall or Palazzo Civico di Bellinzona.
The Old City Hall or Palazzo Civico di Bellinzona.



IMG_2167Italy is all through the Old Town streets that surround Palazzo Civico.


These two buildings are great combinations of Swiss painting style and Italianate architecture.

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And since it’s a very Italian and Catholic section of Switzerland there is an exquisite church. Actually a couple of them.  The first one is Collegiata Dei Santi Pietro.

IMG_2047-0It has an imposing and ornate facade. It’s located in the center of Bellinzona’s old town in the Plaza Collegiata. The plaza is a huge square where the neighboring cafes set up tables and sun umbrellas.  We had lunch at one of those cafes and it was absolutely ideal for people watching and enjoying the breeze.

There was also a great schematic for the front of the building.  Sorry the photo is crooked. I had a child hanging from my elbow.

IMG_2050-0The inside is extraordinarily grand and seems like it reflects Carolingian and Italianate design.

IMG_2052-0The ceiling is fantastic. Murals and carvings. I would miss the entire homily if I went to church here.  It was built in 1424 and was repaired and rebuilt by the same guy who built Italy’s Como Cathedral.


The second church is practically unknown to anyone except the locals.  It’s off the beaten path and a few blocks behind our hotel. It is deceptively plain looking from the outside…IMG_2009  IMG_2010

But wait until you get inside!

IMG_2011It reminds me a lot of the little church we found in Schonenwerd.

IMG_2021IMG_2020 IMG_2012  IMG_2015 IMG_2016 IMG_2017 IMG_2018

Every alcove along the edge of the church was filled with an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary or another saint. Some had a small gold and marble tabernacle. IMG_2019 All the altars had live plants and the tabernacles all had lit candles.  This smaller church didn’t have many paintings, but we didn’t miss it. Actually, having murals over the statues would have made it seem cluttered.

The Catholic church play a big part in the lives of people in Bellinzona, but the main focal point of the city is Castelgrande.  And it is a very large castle.

Mark at Montebello with Castelgrande in the background.

In fact it’s huge. It stretches for miles up the hills and through and around the city.

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You can’t get away from it. It’s like it’s following you. Ready to jump out at you.

Castelgrande as it looks today was built around the 1470 but there are indications that people have lived at that site on-and-off since 5500BC and that hill has been fortified since at least the 1 century BC.

The Romans built a fort here and their foundations were used in the castle built in the 13th century.  And there were a lot of building there at one time, but the Duke of Milan, who was in charge via the Visconti family, had them torn down to make the interior grounds more open.

The White Tower of Castelgrande.

IMG_2039There is loads of space in the castle. They have concerts and other public events there and they hosted a large 1 August event that included fireworks.

See that tall rectangular hole? That is a narrow doorway that leads down a dark narrow hall and to an elevator that takes you up to the the castle proper.
Here is the door way up close. It’s intriguing and a little creepy. The boys loved it.


And there is this. A very long wall that you can walk on!  It’s goes across the city and it is awesome!

IMG_2044 IMG_2046There are two other castles that were built to fortify the city: Montebello and Sasso Corbaro.  We didn’t make it up the hill to Sasso Corbaro, but we did hike up to Montebello.

Montebello has a more traditional look to it with towers and moats and a drawbridge.

Montebello. In all its glory.
Drawbridge down! Open for visitors!
Door lock? Or wine press?
Door lock? Or wine press?

Like most castles, the inner keep was built first. This time in the 13th century. Then in the next century the first wall was built and in the 15th century another wall was built.  Finally in the 1600s a chapel was built. After that it was all fixing stuff from assaults and keeping up with needed repairs.

Ooo! A second drawbridge. The deluxe security package!
Ooo! A second drawbridge. The deluxe security package!
And places to hide!

The courtyard wall is a goodly distance from the keep, giving the family that lived there a lot of room to have servants and soldiers garrisoned there.

See all the holes in the walls?  And see the little roof just over on the right?  Those holes were places for other little slanted roofs.  Those slanted roofs lined the entire wall of the castle. It gave shade to the servants and soldier working outside and protection from arrows that were shot over the castle wall from advancing armies.  Pretty neat, huh!

That is some very heavy slate over wood slats.

They also had walkways around the top of the castle wall so the soldiers could keep watch.

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The castle also had a really cool and almost secret tunnel.  It was a small doorway that was under that awning I pointed out above. The stairs went almost straight down to a hallway that curved off to the left.  The boys bounded down and disappeared for a good 20 minutes.

Look! A child emerges from the depths!

Montebello also houses an absolutely amazing museum full of all the archaeological finds they have excavated over the years; most of it Roman.  Photographs were forbidden, but let me say that it was at least as good of an exhibit as what we saw at Vindolanda in Scotland.

The view alone was worth the visit.


Another remnant of Roman life are the olive trees. Montebello had a small grove of olive trees. H loves, loves, loves olives and was extremely excited about them.  He was only slightly disappointed to learn that he couldn’t eat them right off the tree.  It turns out he is a patient little boy.

It truly is hard to believe that you are still in Switzerland, but you are!   As our oldest observed, “The trains run on time and there is pizza – it’s the best of both worlds!”

Next time we explore more of Italian Switzerland when we take day trips to Lugano and Locarno.


One response to “The Swiss Family Carlson Explores Bellinzona!”

  1. […] I mentioned in my last post (SFC Goes to Bellinzona) we also wanted to go to Locarno and Lugano. A lot of our friends who know about our quest to […]


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